Balkan Winter Resorts
Divah and I knew we’d be moving to Macedonia well ahead of our departure from the US. That lead up gave people plenty of time to ask, “What are you most excited about?” My unequivocal reply, “Snowboarding!”
Way back when, I worked at UC Riverside’s Outdoor Excursions. I waxed and tuned rental snowboards for hours with a great perk, free night sessions at Mountain High. Snowboarding was a weekly activity, but when I moved away from the Sierra Mountains to Washington DC, I didn’t snowboard from 2011 – 2017. I had no problem leaving the US since it meant I’d end my snowboarding drought and have new European mountain ranges to explore.
We moved to Macedonia the week before Thanksgiving and arrived just as resorts in the region opened for the season. I often made Divah and her embassy coworkers jealous as I dropped her off and waved goodbye in a car loaded down with gear for a day trip. More than that, my former self was jealous because in less than a month I snowboarded more than I had over the past six years.
The season was full of unknowns and first times. I’m glad to have those jitters behind me, like knowing where to park, where to buy lift tickets, and that I won’t die if I get on a Soviet-era chair lift to the top of a creepy fogged-in mountain.
I have two words to describe snowboarding in the Balkans: cheap and predictable. Prices were great, especially in Macedonia. On weekdays I routinely got a full-day lift ticket, lunch, coffee, and a beer for under $25. By predictable I could refer to the amount of snow coverage, which was generally quite solid, but really I’m alluding to the overall slope and terrain difficulty across the region. I didn’t experience a huge variety of the mid-level blue/green runs or the more advanced black diamonds. It’s good that the rating scales were consistent, but I felt like even the most challenging runs I came across were missing a certain edginess that could really get my adrenaline pumping. That could be due in large part to the distinct lack of freestyle runs. With rare exceptions, resorts have zero jumps, rails, boxes, jibs, and not even the occasional bonk.
I had a hard time finding good descriptions, especially in English, of resorts in the region. Here is my perspective on the five resorts I visited.
Bansko – Bulgaria
Overall Impression: This was my favorite resort in the Balkans. The apres-ski scene was lively and the town’s lights reminded me of Lake Tahoe. Of course, apres-ski is nothing without matching slope quality. Bansko’s slopes were amazing and outshone the nightlife at the base of the mountain.
From the peak (2914 m), there are tons of trails from which to pick your way down the mountain and it’s hard to go the same way twice. Wide runs provide plenty of space to practice your Euro carves and mountain cabins along the way have plenty of food, beer, and cocoa.
Stay as late in the day as you can. The sun’s reflection off the mountains during golden hour is stunning.
Pros: Tons and tons of runs, especially once a good base layer has been laid down.
Cons: Long lines to get gondola tickets to go up the mountain and a cluster f$%# to get into a gondola at the end of the day. Pro tip: buy lift tickets the night before so you don’t have to stand in a long morning line when Jerry tears up the groomers.
Kopaonik – Serbia
Overall Impression: A winter wonderland, at least for my visit. We arrived at the start of two days of great snowfall. Driving up the mountain was like being in a snowglobe of ALL THE POW! The slopes were groomed well, crowds spread out once you got up past the bottoms lifts, and there was a ton lots of off-piste action to be had (the best in the region in my opinion). I didn’t stray too far from the groomed runs, but even so I picked my way in and out of pine trees and loved every minute of it.
Pros: Night skiing is available on select runs. Groomed runs from top to bottom are in the 7-12 minute range and make the trek from bottom to top worthwhile. The ride up is relatively painless as the chairs run swiftly.
Cons: Smoking is allowed in bars and restaurants and puts a damper on lunch and happy hour beers. As a non-smoker it made life miserable, but don’t let the nicotine deter you, this place is beautiful.
Popova Shakpa – Macedonia
Overall Impression: A lost opportunity for Macedonia to shine. The lack of infrastructure and organization make this place a hit or (mostly) miss all winter. Perfect example, I went one day after it had truly dumped. But the lack of staffing and well-maintained infrastructure meant the chair to the top of the mountain was closed and two out of three of the bottom chairs were down as well. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but it wasn’t. In my ten visits here, the top run was only open twice. Lack of visitors means repairs are slow to be funded and scheduled. Collapsed, rusted chair towers are a bleak reminder of that fact and don’t impart confidence when seen from a distance as you are riding to the top.
Even through all of that, I had two of the most epic pow days of my life on this mountain. Fresh lines all day with less than fifty people on the entire mountain. At Popova Shakpa, you have to put up with some shenanigans that may be worth it in the end.
Pros: Potential for epic epicness. Cute mountain dogs.
Cons: Garbage. Slow chair lifts. Broken infrastructure. Main chair operates primarily on weekends which limits your ability to shred the gnar on a weekday strike.
Mavrovo – Macedonia
Overall Impression: I only hit this place up once and it was for my last session of the season. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. It was in much better shape than Popova Shakpa. Don’t get me wrong, it reeked of the Cold War, but things gave off a sturdier vibe.
A chairlift takes you from the bottom over a steep section of the mountain after which the terrain opens up in front of you. The chair drops you off halfway up the mountain and from there, it’s all T-bars. Getting from the bottom to the top is a painfully long experience. To compound matters, the top run at the end of the highest T-bar is not inspiring and makes you wonder why you bothered to drag yourself up in the first place.
There are some flats you have to bomb if you want to make the full top-to-bottom pilgrimage. The second half of the way down is more entertaining as it is a bit more of a choose your own adventure story. Did I say get ready for a long ride back up?
Popova Shakpa seemed better than Mavrovo in terms of power shredability. At Popova Shakpa, all roads essentially lead back to the parking lot, but at Mavrovo, especially near the top, if you go off piste, you’re going to have to trek yourself back a long way until you are on familiar ground. My recommendation, stay on the marked trails.
Pros: Sturdy infrastructure. Wide variety of T-bar runs. Beautiful lake views.
Cons: Only one chair lift and the mountain top is somewhat hard to access. Lack of explorability off piste.
Borovets – Bulgaria
Overall Impression: My trip to Borovets started out promising. Unfortunately, we got rained on. The trip had the makings of an epic weekend but it was just too warm. I heard rumors of a freestyle park, but I never found it. There was one decently sized jump, but it was closed for half of the day for unexplained reasons.
The resort is divided in two, which I didn’t love. You have to pile into a crowded shuttle with Jerry from England and either wait for a ride home or bomb a cross country ski trail to make it down to the main section. I do recommend checking out both sections. The one further up the mountain had a fun snowcross track and runs so long I had to stop to catch my breath and let my legs rest.
The runs I frequented were decent in length, they were groomed, and coverage was solid. I can’t give this place an accurate rating because weather conditions were terrible. I want to say it would be a bastard love child betwixt Bansko (my favorite) and Mavrovo in Macedonia. It had quality shining through but it was also a little rough around the edges. Jerry was everywhere, when you sat down the chair lift felt like it was going to knock you through next week, and you had to unstrap to cross over a road on one of the main runs.
Pros: Night skiing is available on select runs. If you say freestyle park three times it might appear.
Cons: Shuttle bus needed to access a second, super fun set of runs. Strange hazards on select runs (e.g., a road).